INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – There was another team that was undefeated during the season, that seemed unstoppable at times, that had all the arrows pointing towards a national title.
COVID-19 ended the undefeated dream. Nothing could stop Baylor from cutting the nets.
Not even Gonzaga.
The Bears, fresher as they can be, erased Gonzaga’s shaky-legged march to his own undefeated season Monday night. It was an 86-70 fugitive that brought the first national title from this once downtrodden program back home to Waco, Texas.
Jared Butler scored 22 points and MaCio Teague had 19 for the Bears (28-2), who ranked second or third in the AP poll all year. But never first. That was down to one team and maybe, just maybe, a three-week hiatus that halted a 17-0 start and sapped some of Baylor’s growing momentum.
“Before COVID, Gonzaga and we were on our way to being undefeated,” coach Scott Drew reminded everyone in the socially estranged arena during a television interview as he removed the confetti.
So perhaps this blowout in one of the most anticipated finals in living memory, a meeting between teams whose own regular-season showdown in December was scrapped due to a coronavirus outbreak, should come as no surprise.
The two losses that came after Baylor’s COVID-19 breakout in February felt like a distant memory in March. Then April came, and the feeling grew even stronger.
Baylor outscored its six opponents in the tournament by an average of 15 points. He beat Houston 19 in the semifinal. With less than 5 minutes to go, the Bears were ahead of Gonzaga by double digits.
Hitting the offensive glass – Baylor won that battle 16-5 – and winning most of the balls 50-50, the Bears weren’t about to let it come down to a Jalen Suggs miracle. Gonzaga’s freshman buzzer from near the midfield logo led the Zags to the finals in a game that stood as their first true test of the season.
They passed UCLA. Against Baylor? Not even close.
“When you’re up against a team that’s shooting at full throttle for 40 minutes, it’s kind of tough to compete with him,” Zags forward Corey Kispert said.
After running to a 19-point lead early, the Bears never let Gonzaga get closer than nine. Butler made four 3s and added seven assists, and was named the top player in the Final Four.
“I knew that at some point we were big,” said Butler, who insisted his team was not focused on the scoreboard. “We were scoring, they weren’t scoring. It was just electrifying. “
Guard Davion Mitchell, nicknamed “Off Night” because so many opponents run into one when they go up against him, finished with 15 points and did the best he could with Suggs. The freshman finished with 22 points, most of them after this game was out of control, and will likely head to the NBA draft next.
Gonzaga’s first loss in 32 games this season, 36 dating from 2019-20, leaves the 1975-76 Indiana team the last to go undefeated.
Baylor was up 9-0 after 2 1/2 minutes, and the Bulldogs faced only their fourth double-digit deficit of the season at 11-1. They faced their biggest deficit of the season, 15 points, with 7:10 left. By then, Suggs had two fouls and was watching from the bench.
After the game, he was crying, burying his head in one teammate’s shoulder, then another.
“He’s a winner and he lost for the first time in college basketball,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “He is very competitive and he doesn’t like to lose. In his mind, he saw us cutting nets. “
But more than anything he did in the title game, it was Suggs’s memorable basket two nights earlier that laid the groundwork for Gonzaga in this one. His shot at the doorbell bench against UCLA capped off one of the most fascinating college basketball games ever. Back on the ground some 46 hours after that emotional roller coaster, it was clear the Zags were gassed.
The sequence that best illustrated the energy gap came about six minutes into the competition, when Baylor’s Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua knocked the ball out of Drew Timme’s hands and the Bears passed the ball in front of Mitchell. He missed a layup, but Tchamwa Tchatchoua took the offensive rebound and fed Adam Flagler for a 3.
Gonzaga was practically standing there for everything.
Few, now 0-2 in title games, gave Baylor all the credit and didn’t blame their own team’s fatigue.
“Obviously, it’s a tough change, but it was more just Baylor’s aggressiveness and athleticism,” Few said. “They deserved it. Frankly, they were fabulous. “
Gonzaga briefly came close to nine early in the second half and saw a glimmer of hope when Tchamwa Tchatchoua joined another Baylor big man, Flo Thamba, on the bench with four fouls.
But Baylor responded with a 9-2 run marked by Mark Vital’s rejection of Kispert, then a counter that led to an easy 3 by Flagler.
After that, it’s over. Yes, Gonzaga could have been the most admirable team of the year with their dramatic run to perfection, not to mention tournament opportunity.
But it was Baylor, not Suggs, jumping on top of the scorer’s table and cheering for the fans at the end. And those were the Bears cutting the nets.
“When the fans are happy, that’s what makes our players happy and proud,” Drew said. “They stayed with us, they have been with us during the lean years. They deserve this. ”
In 2003, Drew took over a roster of just seven scholarship players and a team looking at years of NCAA probation in the wake of the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate.
Drew’s introductory press conference was trending after the title game. That day, formal in a coat and tie, he stood behind the lectern and proclaimed, “I didn’t come to go to the NCAA Tournament. We came to win games in the NCAA Tournament. We came with the opportunity to win a national championship at Baylor University. “
Eighteen years later, Drew found himself behind a different microphone.
He was sitting at a table, answering questions about Zoom in front of a background with a Final Four logo.
He was grinning widely, drenched in sweat, a cut net hanging from his neck.
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